Nepal: A New Life

How Tourism Turns Victims of Human Trafficking Into Strong Women

[Translate to english:] Nepalesische Reiseleiterinnen

Sasane enabled Sitasma to re-build her life. She had been trafficked from her village in Nepal to a brothel in India and managed to escape. She was trained as a tour guide, regained her self-confidence and now works with Sasane Sisterhood Trekking & Travel.

“Sasane gave me a new life”, says Sitasma Gurung*. Like her, many young women from rural areas in Nepal become victims of trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation. Most of them are from districts affected by the earthquake in 2015, where economic hardships increased. To support female survivors of human trafficking, a group of survivors formed the NGO Samrakshak Samuha Nepal (Sasane). After Sasane’s formal establishment, they started with emergency rescue programmes and then proceeded to community awareness and a tourism initiative which ultimately transforms the lives of the women.

Training and employment go together

Sasane has chosen a hybrid approach: The non-profit NGO and the for-profit company are separate entities, but share the same mission of empowering women through education, training, and employment. The NGO trains the women in exchange for financial support from the company Sasane Sisterhood Trekking & Travel.

Sitasma is one out of eleven women who benefitted from Sasane’s innovative approach of training them to become tour guides and hospitality staff. She was lucky to have escaped after having been sold to India and forced to work as a sex worker in India, imprisoned in a small room — day and night — with no proper food and water. She managed to run away and hide in huge sewage pipes, until one of the passers-by noticed her and took her to a police station. Overcoming the language barrier by drawing, she was able to inform the police that she was from Nepal. She was then taken to Sasane’s partner organisation Maiti Nepal for shelter.

But coming back home was difficult. “I had lost every hope when my family denied to accept me after they knew”, she remembers. Her life changed when she was finally referred to Sasane for rehabilitation training. “I chose tour/trekking guide training as I learnt in counselling sessions about the good scope in the tourism sector”, narrates Sitasma. “I was trained by Sasane, which made me aware of various laws, provisions and opportunities in tourism. I was given months of English language and basic computer skills training. I successfully passed the trekking examination and received a guide license.” 

Being given the opportunity to become tour guides and hospitality staff, women like Sitasma gain the self-esteem, skills, knowledge, experience and economic independence they need to become leaders in whatever field they choose to pursue.

“Now I lead tours in cities and also host trekking with travellers from various parts of the world. I get the opportunity to interact with travellers and understand their culture and share mine. I earn a good amount of money which enables me to afford a rented flat and give money to my family as well”, says Sitasma. As tour leaders in Kathmandu and Pokhara and as trekking guides in their mountain villages, the women are no longer stigmatized and ostracized by their communities. They get the respect that they deserve. “I am accepted by my family and they now encourage me to achieve even more“, says Sitasma.

Strong women like her can become role models for young Nepali girls and provide hope and inspiration for other victims. They feel proud of themselves and all that they have accomplished, which may also help them to heal from their traumatic pasts.

Raising awareness with travellers

To ensure the women’s safety and security and to protect them from being re-victimized, Sasane Sisterhood Trekking and Travel introduced briefings of a code of ethics and formulated proper behaviour patterns expected from travellers. Designated safeguarding officers are in place to tackle any misbehaviour witnessed from travellers. The company sensitizes travellers to the dreadful aspects of human trafficking, the struggle of human trafficking survivors and the contribution tourism can make to enable these young women to lead a new life. 

Survivors of human trafficking have been through things we could never imagine. Their strength, courage and resilience are inspiring. However, due to their traumatic experiences they do at times lack self-confidence. Many express that they would like more trekking training in order to compete with what they see as much more experienced trekking guides.

Yet, what these women have that other guides do not have is their life experiences. These are their mountains and their villages, no one knows these areas better than these women who were raised here. For many, these are places they thought they would never be able to return to due to the shame and rejection they often face. But they do return, and they return with their heads held high, proud of what they have accomplished through the training and financial independence gained from being part of Sasane. Each of these women deserves the opportunity to achieve her individual dream and potential.

*Name changed

Jeny Pokharel is the Founder of Sasane Sisterhood Trekking & Travel, a tour operator in Kathmandu, Nepal, providing mountain village exploration, city and cultural tours, wellness packages, culinary classes, adventure tours, etc. Sasane was awarded the TO DO Award Human Rights in Tourism in 2023.